I need help here. Or, at least, I need company. I am in the process of looking at lenses in the event that I decide to rebuild a new camera system. So I am looking at quite a few possibilities, and researching the pictures made by various lenses, all mounted on Sony A7x cameras. I also read lots of reviews and opinions on said lenses.
My problem is this. Almost everything I read mentions sharpness, especially corner sharpness, coma, mid-zone dips, chromatic aberrations, micro-contrast, etc…
Now I am not knocking this, or saying these parameters don’t matter. Certainly not! I may just be less-than-competent-enough to correlate the scientific findings with the human experience. But then why should the human factor feature more prominently in reviews, if it were the reviewers’ avowed goal?
My problem is that all these factors combined matter to me less than what I call, for want of a better word, rendering. The “look” of an image. Each link in the production chain that leads to an image imbues it with a “look”. Pascal recently sent me Internet-sized images comparing the same shot processed with 2 different processors, and it took me bare seconds to decide that I liked the “look” of one much more than of the other (no surprise to many of you, the one I liked less was the ubiquitous LightRoom).
Furthermore, if a lens suffers from coma or CA or a mid-zone dip, it does not affect each portion of every picture. But its “look” does.
I recently went to a photo show and tried out some lenses. As you can imagine, shooting possibilities were very limited indeed. 4 shots with each lens, none of them at any long distance. No way to do a technical evaluation. But one look through the LCD of the first shot informed me of the lens’ look.
This is how I bought lenses in the past (dozens of them). I would go to my neighbourhood shop, borrow a lens I coveted, take a pretty standard circular walk of less than 1km and 10mn, and hand the lens back, saying, I’ll look at the pics and let you know. Though even based on just peeking at the LCD, I had a pretty good idea what my decision would be. Looking back, did I go wrong many times? Basically not, except when I bought lenses that “I was told I had to buy”, like the Sony-Zeiss 55mm f:1.8 (I even bought it twice!).
Did I have surprises, or were such walks just excuses and alibis for my GAS? I had great surprises. I loved the idea of the Sony-Zeiss 24mm f:1.8 and was hugely disappointed. I had no expectations of the Leica Elmar 24mm f:3.8 that the dealer thrust into my hand unbidden, and it was love at first sight. I really didn’t want to buy the Zeiss Otus 55mm f:1.4 that Pascal, Zeiss and my dealer conspired to have me try out, and the rest is history, based on just one picture that blew my mind. So the process seems to be more than just taking pot luck.
By the way, it doesn’t mean that I am “right”, or that the lenses, the looks of which I like are “better”. Just that they will deliver what I like, even if it is full of the much-decried mid-zone dip.
So, why is it that this “look”, or rendering, is so important to me, and that I can assess it quickly and reliably, and that it seems to matter so little to so few? Is it because it is an individual preference, whereas tech data are factual? It is because it is difficult to talk about and describe in a way many can understand, whereas MTF curves are easy to decipher?
Now, does that mean that I can find no rational, factual causes to what I like? Not really. For example, I like lenses with high micro-contrast in focus, but lowish contrast int he bokeh. I like lenses with smooth, gradual transitions from in-focus to out-of-focus.
But still, knowing how and why I like what I like doesn’t help me understand why so few people talk about the “look”, the “rendering”, the “style”, the “soul” of a lens, and find it so much more important to praise how sharp it is.
But I wouldn’t like you to think that lens rendering is the only parameter that “really matters” which “escapes the attention” of most reviewers, too consumed with numerical evidence to pay (in my humble opinion) enough attention to human factors. Pascal’s forthcoming review of the Hasselblad X1-D (watch this space, this will be a humdinger!) will highlight that DearSusan, for all the knowledge of its members, still considers human factors the most critical to image making.
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Dear Philber, I’ve been following your photography for some time now, through DearSusan and FM. I like your enthusiasm, but I often felt that your photography was too much tied into to gear you were using – like you were relaying on expensive gear to deliver the results. Then I was delighted to see a change when all your gear was stolen, of course I’m sorry about what happened, but all of the sudden you seemed to be free from gear-minded approach. I felt it was a refreshing change and followed what would come out of it. Maybe you would start approaching photography from a subjects point of view, which would be a step into personal growth as a photographer. Now with the new post about ‘lens rendering’ I feel you are again locked inside gear orientated discourse. I mean, in GAS-related forums all people do is talk about ‘the lens rendering’, like it would be a some sort of wine tasting contest – I wouldn’t want photography to go into this kind of lifestyle direction. Vision, light and subject matters a lot more how the pictures look than anything else. I know it’s been said thousands of times, but it rings the truth. I would find it a lot more refreshing to speak about personal vision, growth, aesthetics, etc than gear choices. In a word, I feel you taking wrong direction which will eventually get you burned because ‘the lens rendition’ is too fine and small thing to build one’s photography on. Sorry for the criticism, but this was written with a good will.
Thanks for the kind words, and the criticism, Toni! You are 100% correct, it is easy to get drawn back into the vortex of gear-based photography, and I made that same comment today to Pascal. Though, in the case of my post, you and I may have a slight misunderunderstanding. I am not saying a lens with “good rendering” “makes” your picture, only that many (most?) reviews are so far from what matters as to be unusable for me. In my opinion, some gear lets you do what you want to do, and some not. Some “let you do the talking” and some “do the talking for you”, if you see what I mean. I am looking for gear that will get out of the way and let me do the talking. Even if that means not adding their “beauty” and “performance” to my pics as some expesnive pieces of gear do. But thanks again for keeping me on my toes and wary of going down that slippery slope again.
A very intriguing essay, and well-illustrated with some beautiful images. In the beginning (at least my beginning) there was film. Lenses were good, but not as good as lenses of today, if our measure is optical characteristics that can be measured. Lenses are now designed by computer, and produced by computer guided manufacturing processes. The vagaries of chemical emulsions have been replaced by the ever increasing resolution of digital sensors. We have reached a point where the photographic process can produce images that are hyper-real, to the point where they begin to appear surreal. At the same time, image processing in the computer has opened up all manor of adjustments, so that contrast, saturation, exposure curves, and so on, become matters of choice, reflecting taste.
I think we lack a vocabulary to discuss what you are looking for. I haven’t had the opportunity to test as many lenses as you have, but I have my own favorites. I shoot with Sony A7r3, and use both Sony lenses and vintage Contax c/y Zeiss and Nikkor lenses. The Otis are out of reach. I appreciate hearing about other lenses, and look forward to this discussion
Good questions. One factor that you didn’t mention is the color of a lens’ rendition (although that is part of character). Tested Loawa STF vs Sony 100mm STF and was shocked at the difference. The Loawa was bland, the Sony very saturated. The Milvus 85mm more neutral. Nikon glass gives a bit different color (such as the Nikon 100mm DC).
There are some reviews that take color into consideration. Many contemporary lenses are adequately sharp for general purposes, so I watch color carefully. For landscapes (or when using f5.6 and higher) IMO it moves up the list in terms of importance. I like the Loxia line for light weight and consistency.
Georg, you are absolutely right, colours -and contrast for that matter- are important factors that often overlooked or not given the importance that they deserve. Again, colours and contrast affect 100% of every image, corner sharpness doesn’t…
I think your trial and selection method is quite good, particularly for use on a Sony A7xxx. Which can capture images with a much different rendering if you are using adapted lenses. The only addition I would suggest to this is to rent the lens for a week or more for a longer trial period.
My next questions would be:
Only native lenses?
Only adapted lenses?
Or a mix of the two?
Your answers to these will influence lens suggestions and successful choices.
Paul, your comments make total sense. Borrowing/renting for a few days (or even less if one is fast about it) is worth more than a thousand reviews. And in some cases, you can even deduct the cost of the rental from the purchase price if you decide to buy.
For researching pictures this link _might_ be useful…
They provide photos for many camera-lens combinations – probably with an EXIF search engine (?).
I find Dustin Abbott’s lens reviews interesting, he really uses a lens first.
Thanks for the tips and ratings, Kristian! I looked at some of DA’s lens reviews, and they are definitely a cut above average. Though, for example in the case, of the very unusual Laowa STF, I would go further than he does in trying to explain how unusual it is. Though of course I have to defer to Georg in that respect, because he owns one!
And I do like your photos, all.
But my personal favourites are
# 1, 3, 5, 8, 9, 12
(counting the vignette as #0).
I rather like the arrangement you had with the neighbourhood shop – try before you buy! I used to have an arrangement much the same as that with my original camera shop, way back in the era when they were just starting to introduce television in this country, and cars still had windows with a hand winding mechanism. (Don’t puke – it could be worse – my memories stretch back as far as the closing years of World War II, milk carts and bread carts drawn by clydesdales delivering the milk and bread each day, and worse!)
Philippe, you must by now be aware that you should never believe everything you read. That’s the photographer’s equivalent of having to buy this year’s fashions, just because they happen to be this year’s fashions. What is important is what YOU like.
And it isn’t just about lenses, either. It’s about sensors (which means broadly speaking that it’s about choosing the camera brand with the sensors that you prefer). And post processing – we ALL do SOME pp, let’s face it; at Pascal’s suggestion I tried a range of different programs last year and guess what? – dumped the one that was my mainstay before that – I don’t think I’ve used it once, since those trials. And whether you keep all your images digital or you print your photos – and in the former case, what your screen is like – or the latter, which printer you use.
But finally – most of all – it’s about YOU. YOUR preferences. YOUR taste. You do just fine in this area (as the photos in your article clearly demonstrate). Anyway, it’s not something other people can offer advice on, even if you had the most appalling taste, and wore knee length socks with roman sandals.
Pete, what on earth is wrong with knee-length socks and Roman sandals? And who ratted me out? It can only be Pascal!!! Well, maybe next you should talk to him about his hiking in platform shoes!!!
More to the point, yes, it is about the shooter, his/her preferences, etc. Question is, why is the camera world pretending so hard that it is all about numbers? That probably doesn’t help it get out of the present slump when there is such a gap between what would-be customers are told they should like and what could resonate with them.
If they are worried about numbers, instead of images, they are probably “wannabe’s” and struggling to achieve. At one extreme I shoot with Otus lenses on a D810. At the other, I still have a Nik pocket thing with a minute sensor – and I regularly shoot with a 1″ sensor in a Canon PowerShot, because it’s fun to use and gives great images. I don’t give a damn what the figures are. I like using all my cams. It’s fun to change around, and try something different. Anyway, I use them for different purposes.
And as for digging them out of the slump. From what I’ve been reading, it looks like Fuji is steaming along steadily, trying to provide what customers want. While the rest of the mob is shooting all over the place. Worst is when they try dictating to the market – that never works!
Great article! I agree, maybe the sharpest lens isn’t the best for a photographer. The only really nice lenses I want are the APO 50mm Summicron-M ASPH and the recent f/0.95 Noctilux, but I don’t NEED them. The lenses I actually have on my “kit list” are from the 1970’s, while Walter Mandler was their lead designer, and they are a 50mm Summicron to replace my dated and delicate collapsible one, and/or, if I’m ever REALLY blessed, the Noctilux. The reason for this is, I have the privilege of owning a 90mm Summicron M and a 135mm Elmarit M. They have a soft sharpness to them that I love and is difficult to describe, and the research I’ve done leads me to Mandler’s designs.
Thanks for the kind words, Erich! Mandler lenses are typical for having “soul” (in his case, maybe Gestalt would be better:-) Vs good numerical performance. They were noted for “glow” wide open, which many liked even though it was an abberation. One just has to look at the market prices for lenses that are by now quite old to see that you are not alone in loving these designs. And there is a treasure trove of great shots produced with them over time. Proof of the pudding is in the shooting…:-)
My father would probably murder me for this revelation, Pascal. But I think it’s definitely “on topic”, now that two of you have referred to wine tasting.
Surveys are a wonderful source of information. And someone here did one recently, to test the difference in levels of appreciation of “fine wines”, and the ability to judge which was “better” and which wasn’t. The survey was intended to rate true afficionados – sommeliers, oenologists etc – against complete amateurs who simply liked the stuff.
Guess what? – the only real difference between the two groups was the “true afficionados” knew all the technical terms – the grunters simply knew which ones they liked best, but couldn’t add tags to the different qualities which drove them to their choices and preferences.
So you were absolutely correct, Pascal. It’s all about the proper vocabulary.
God forbid that photography should ever pursue the same path! 🙂
What? You object to vanilla-flavoured bokeh and earthy mid tones ?
I deliberately set to work to have “arguments” with him about which wines were better. Of course he knew everything! – and the notion that his youngest son could double-guess his knowledge, experience and wisdom was absolutely untenable. Since he liked the punchy red wines (generally blended**) from the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, I rose to the challenge by telling him I preferred the cold climate varietals, from vineyards way to the south. After he stopped screaming, I announced – “I’m not continuing this discussion – one of us is right and one of us is wrong – and I’m going to leave it to history, to decide which!” – and put an end to it all.
** Most wines are, in fact, blended – even if the amount is “insignificant” – and of course I knew perfectly well that was so. But because he was broadly regarded as the “master blender” of his generation in Australia, dragging that into the “argument” was like drenching it with Sriracha sauce!
And yes – to answer your question more directly – I do object to “piffle” terms, used by pretentious people to shop-dress what they have to say in a manner that is intended to disarm anyone who dares to have a different view. It’s entirely possible to talk in a much simpler manner, so that everyone is on the same level and everyone can understand. 🙂 It’s also much more well-mannered.
You mischievous son, you! I feel for your poor father, being the recipient of similar friendly banter and challenge from my own proginy.
I too far prefer the wines from cooler climates. Please forgive me, but I tend to prefer NW wines to Autralian wines (ouch).
LOL – nothing to forgive, Pascal. It’s like Australian “brie” vs French brie – I won’t eat one and adore the other. And I drink mostly French or Italian wines, which would have horrified him a lot more, if he was still alive. 🙂
I think one of the major challenges to the kind of reviewing you are wishing for is a standardized lexicon of terminology to talk about these non-quantitative characteristics. This is a challenge in all fields of artistic driven work, whether it’s audio recording, photography, or wine tasting.
Is there such a lexicon?
Michael, about that wine-tasting analogy: I studied oenology for a year and the only goal of our teacher was to give us the proper vocabulary to describe wines we liked so as to be able to talk with a dealer and buy similar wines. It was fascinating.
And your question is the right one: is there such a lexicon in photography? To my mind, there should be. I get acused of being a Zeiss fanboy, which is very true. But Zeiss design lenses using software that simulates the look of a lens based on a theoretical design, way before it is actually built. That says a lot about their desire to produce lenses that look good rather than lenses that measure well.
We live in a quantitative world where those not in the know buy based on specs and it’s super refreshing to find companies who don’t buy into that, when it would make them so much more money if they did.
We need that lexicon 😉 Maybe that could make an interesting collaborative project ? Interested ?
Yes, I would be interested. A question… is the task a lexicon for describing lens characteristics or image characteristics more generally? Can we even separate the two?
It seems that deciding that would be a necessary first step to create/select a set of reference images (which, like the smell library sets used for wine nose training – my wife is a Certified Sommelier, so we have those at home) needed to begin to attach language to.
Do these reference images need to be well-matched pairs (or sets) illustrating various lens characteristics – perhaps with some sense of the ‘degree’ of the characteristic identified (dangerously bordering on quantitative) – or just individual images that exemplify certain characteristics to which descriptive language can be attached.
Here are a couple of links to help you with your reviews.
The first link is images posted at the Fred Miranda forum using Sony FE lenses and the second is to the Fred Miranda forum section for alternative gear and lenses. There may be some images that strike your fancy.
As I am sure you are aware non-native lenses can render dramatically different on a Sony A7xxx body thanks to the thicker sensor cover glass. Because of the traits that the cover glass brings to adapted lenses, if you are planning to use several non-native lenses I suggest that you give serious consideration to having two bodies of the same model. One will be for using native Sony mount wide-angle lenses, and the second to send to Kolari Vision for their Ultra-thin cover glass conversion for your adapted lenses. I have done the conversion to my Sony A7II and it allows non-native lenses, particularly film design SLR and rangefinder lenses, to perform much closer to how they did on film.
Though, keep in mind that while the Kolari modification improves the performance of adapted lenses, native lenses can suffer, especially the ultra-wides. So the modification is a serious relationship choice.
Paul, thanks for the suggestions, they are entirely appropriate. I am familiar with Fred Miranda, it is indeed a fine source. [Edited twice] Regarding the “old” M 75 ‘Lux, I owned the R 80 ‘Lux, which is the same lens, and I couldn’t come to love it. Focus throw at distances beyond beyond 5m was very short, making focusing really difficult for me. I decided it was essentially a portrait lens, which I hardly ever do, and I let it go without regret. Now, as I look at the very few pics I made with it, I feel I may have misjudged it. With M lenses I had mixed experiences. I loved my Elmar 24 and ‘Lux 50 ASPH, but not my APO 75 ‘Cron. As to the Noctilux 75 f:1.25, I haven’t tried it, nor seen many pictures from it, especially with Sony body, so I can’t comment.
As to Kolari mods, they are not my cup of tea. I don’t like the idea that, if something should go wrong, it can’t be serviced because it is no longer standard. Also, from what I’ve seen, while the mod does indeed achieve its stated goal, and the camera works well with M-mount wides, there seem to be some issues with some standard FE-mount lenses. To iffy for my (lack of) abilities.
As to the lenses I am “looking for”, highest IQ is not my criterion today, else a trio of Otus would slake my thirst. I am looking for lenses that will essentially “not get in my way”. Getting in my way could happen one of two ways. (a) by being so cumbersome/heavy that they kick my laziness into taking over, or (b) by having a rendering where flaws, lack of performance and/or rendering idiosyncrasies stand between me and the subject. With that in mind, native lenses seem to be the way to go, with Zeiss, Voigtländer and Laowa my on my lust list.
I understand where you are coming from. There is nothing like things that are made to work together and do it very well.
My experiment with the Sony A7II and modified lenses is the opposite extreme. Mixing things that were not made to go together and seeing what the combinations bring to the plate.
Unfortunately, I can’t make a recommendation for you based on experience, since I do not have any native lenses. Though I have enjoyed images I have seen on the web from the Zeiss 25mm Loxia, and Thom Hogan speaks highly of the Sony 90mm Macro.
Have fun trying different things.
Paul, once again, you are on the money. My thoughts right now are that the (for me) single most desirable small-and-light-native lens for the Sony system is the Loxia 25mm. I really have trouble imagining myself with that as my everyday go-to lens, because I have been up to now a 50mm guy, but i didn’t have too many instances with my 28mm being “too wide”, so pushing it to 25mm could work for me, methinks. Then, I’d need something to complement it on the longer side, and the obvious choice is a lens I know well, as I have reviewed it, the Loxia 85mm. Which means I would be straddling but ommitting my favorite focal length… Other possibilities are the CV 40 f:1.2 the soon-to-announced Batis 40 f:2.0 cf, and the Batis 135 f:2.8 APO.
The Loxia twins sounds like a nice pair to start with, if you feel the need to start with two. Back when I was a Nikon user, 90% of my images were made using a 24 mm and 85 mm. So I know the attraction that you are feeling.
Though, it may be beneficial to start with the 25mm and get to know it. Then try something that you feel is missing. With your flower photography you may want a dedicated macro lens in the 90mm -100mm range; the 40mm Batis may not give you enough separation from your subject.
So, if you are feeling adventurous, I suggest you try the 135mm Batis, before you settle on the 85mm. This will force you to stretch your usual vision and add extension tubes to see how this affects your close vision. It might be a nice Jolt. Why 135mm vs. 85? If you are like me, lenses in the 75, 85, 90, and 100 range are pretty comfortable to work with. I have had these lenses with every system I have used, and I still have a few either as the true focal length or the M43 equivalent.
I have a 135mm M lens and it is odd. Partly because it is more difficult to focus well with a rangefinder, and partly because it is just a little bit in the middle between 100 and 200. On the other hand, constraint brings creativity, and so does being odd. Which means mine needs to come out of the closet to be used exclusively on my A7II for a while.
Paul, once more you make total sense. And, yes, I tried the Batis 135, and I found it a very attractive proposition. But this is not where I am at. My ideal system would be one lens. Light, simple, and that lets me get on with my chase of the Great White Wilson. But, fact is, there is no “standard” native lens of moderate weight that appeals to me. I would have loved to adapt a 50 ‘Lux, a favorite of mine, but it does not play nice with un-modded Sony bodies. So hence my attraction to a two-lens setup. Does it mean that I am not temped by more than two? Of course not, once a GASoholic, always a GASoholic. So I’d love to have a MF system, with Laowa 15, Loxia 25, CV 40, CV65, Loxia 85, CV 110, and a AF system with Batis 18, Batis 40, Sony 85 GM, Sony 90 macro and Batis 135. That cost and weighs more than my previous Otus setup, so it totally defeats the purpose. Besides, when I was on a 3-lens system, 85% of the time I didn’t change lenses in the field, which shows that have more than the minimum doesn’t actually fill a need.
Since you mentioned you like the Leica 50mm Summilux, but are not considering one in favor of native lenses. I though you might like to see some comparison images between the Summilux and Sony Zeiss 50mm f1.4 on a Sony A9.
Most of the images in the links below are done at portrait distances, but they do show rendering between the lenses on the same body.
This site has a lot of other comparisons as well.
Paul, thanks for this very interesting comparison. It reminds me how much I love(d) the ‘Lux 50, and why. And how much I don’t click with Sony-Zeiss lenses and why (and it’s not size, either). I thought about what you said re: pushing out from a 85 to a 135. I had a 135 that I loved, the Zeiss ZF 135 f:2.0 APO, and it was a revelation. How much use I would get out of a 135 lens if I just screwed it on my camera and stuck to it. Which is why the Batis 135 is tempting, but I am squeamish at the thought of just going with 25/135. I need to get back to the Loxia 50 and see what use I got out of that one, which would fill such a gap perfectly, but, from memory, while it was eminently likeable, it was not quite “up there”, certainly not the equal of a ‘Lux. The answer many are turning to is the CV 40 f:1.2, and I have seen many fine images from it. It is not a perfect lens (can’t be with those specs, size and cost), but, when you avoid its weaknesses, it delivers at high level. If I did go that route, then I know that it would be on for 75% of the time, and the 25/85 would share 25%. Which is why, for now, I’d rather go 25/85, because it offers no “lazy route”, and forces me to be deliberate about FL rather than flubbing it with a standard one. Crazy to leave out the favorite focal lens, the one that feels “at home” in PascalSpeak? Definitely. But captain Bchab is cray, isn’t he?
Since you are looking for suggestions, and like lenses with good near/far separation, I think you should try the new Leica 75mm Noctilux.
I just read the new installment by Thorsten Overgaard, and some of his images rival Pascal’s with the X1D.
Very lens lust worthy.